David Bromberg is perhaps best described as a free-range multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter.
In the 1960s, he surfaced in the Greenwich Village folk scene. His sonic palette embraces blues, roots, bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll, jazz, gospel, ethnic and country influences as well as slugs of sly humor. His stringed arsenal includes guitar, fiddle, dobro, mandolin, and pedal steel guitar. He has a staggering history as a live and studio sideman, collaborator, soloist and bandleader. He even has been sampled by the Beastie Boys.
Bromberg’s current recording project, “The Blues, The Whole Blues, and Nothing But The Blues,” features originals and tunes linked to Robert Johnson, Ray Charles, Blind Willie McTell, Little Hat Jones and Bessie Smith. The album, produced by former Bob Dylan band member Larry Campbell, drops in October, but Bromberg and his quintet will unveil a few of these selections Sunday, June 26, at Grass Valley’s The Center for the Arts.
Bromberg’s musical journey started with an unexpected encounter with a reverend. “I was walking down Bleeker Street in the Village,” Bromberg, 70, said recently about his early immersion in the blues, “and there was a little club called the Dragon’s Den and a sandwich board out front that said ‘This Afternoon Only – Reverend Gary Davis.’ I had heard some of his (gospel and blues) recordings so I went in and it was wonderful. I asked him if he gave lessons and he said yes. I asked him if I could take them and he said: ‘Yes, $5, bring the money honey.’
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“So I started out paying for the lessons but after awhile, instead of paying, I would lead him to church (Davis was blind) or concerts or wherever he needed to go.”
Liking what he heard, Bromberg began attending other church services. “I learned a great deal about guitar playing from the sermons,” he said. “There are a lot of musicians today who play blues who play very long phrases. You don’t have to take a breath on the guitar so they play continuous lines. But if you listen to B.B. King and Albert King and the guys who I consider (to be) the greats, you’ll discover the choice of notes are their own. B.B. used to say that tonally he was trying to duplicate Lonnie Johnson, but phrasing wise, it’s church. It’s absolutely preaching.
“(The pauses and the rhythm) are tremendously important,” he continued. “I tell people, and they think I am trying to be funny, that rests are the best notes that I play. But I’m not trying to be funny. That’s really true.”
Bromberg was raised in Tarrytown, N.Y. He started teaching himself to play on his older brother’s guitar at age 13 while sequestered with measles. His first huge break came in 1970 at the Isle of Wight Festival. He performed one of his own songs while appearing as a sideman for folkie Rosalie Sorrels and was signed by Columbia Records. His self-titled 1971 debut included a song he co-wrote with George Harrison.
Bromberg and his manager-friend Gary Haber moved from New York to Marin County around 1976 after Haber’s apartment and office were burglarized five times in the same month. By 1980, Bromberg had released 10 albums, but a two-year period of constant touring left him burned out. He quit the road, sold most of his instruments, studied violin making in Chicago, and opened David Bromberg Fine Violins in Wilmington, Del.
After a 17-year hiatus, Bromberg began recording again in 2007. His past associations with the likes of Dylan, Levon Helm, the Grateful Dead and Jerry Jeff Walker, his copious original material, his covers – ranging from Phil Spector’s “To Know Him Is to Love Him” to Conway Twitty’s vocal version of “Last Date” to local harmonica ace Rick Estrin’s “I’ll Take You Back” – provide a deep pocket of swing, reels, waltzes, funk, shuffles, ballads, rock and storytelling that feeds his unpredictable live shows.
“We don’t have set lists,” Bromberg said. “So there’s no telling what we will play.”
David Bromberg Quintet
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, June 26
Where: The Center for the Arts, Grass Valley